Friday, August 24, 2018

Oshkosh's new schools superintendent talks about her background and her approach to the job

Follow this link to hear Superintendent Vickie Cartwright's welcome message for the new school year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYptOKGPw6E
Vickie Cartwright is the new superintendent for the Oshkosh Area School District, which starts its academic year Sept. 4. In this interview she describes some of the medical and economic challenges of her childhood as well as the hobby that became her ticket to a college education. She began her career as a high school and middle school band director, eventually working her way up to become the associate superintendent in Florida’s Orange County, which is the nation’s ninth largest school district. Her current position pays $195,000 a year.

Cartwright was interviewed by Zack Dion. The following has been edited and condensed. 



If you had to use three words to describe yourself, what would they be? 


I’m very people-oriented, I’m purpose-driven and a strategic thinker, which would go along with forward thinker. That’s probably how I would describe myself, I’m just so passionate. I’m passionate about our community. I’m passionate about children and how we work together to ensure that we set our children up for success.

The power that teachers have to influence lives is amazing. The power that administrators have to influence lives is amazing. The power of anybody who touches a child: a custodian, a secretary, a paired professional, all of us have enormous power and can influence the lives of children. It’s so important and so valuable. There’s one thing you’ll hear from me, and you’ll hear it a lot: No one person is better than anyone else; we just have different roles and responsibilities. That’s key for me, and I’ll live my life that way. So, that’s a little about me.

How have you settled into Oshkosh so far?

I own a house. I live across the street from Menominee Park, off of Merritt Avenue. My location of my house is intentional. I’m here for a long period, as long as the board will have me and the community will have me. I’m here. This is not a short run as you might say. This is my new home and will become my home. I’m eager to meet people and to learn about the community and all that it has to offer. It’s very important.

I’m really enjoying the activities. Oh my gosh, Farmers Market! Just being able to wander around and meet people. The art, the multicultural experience that the community offers as well. The importance of the visual and performing arts here in this community is so important because that’s such a huge part of my personal life, too. 


I’ve been getting out to all the different events that I can and just becoming a part of the community. Because when we say that we’re building community through education, I’m a part of the community and education is a part of the community as well. I’m just an extension of this school district. It’s not about me; it’s about our district. So, becoming engrained is important.

What things about our district stand out to you? 


The level of commitment that staff has to serving the need of the whole child. This district is really doing a lot of cutting-edge things. So, when we talk about trauma-informed care, when we talk about cultural responsiveness, positive behavior intervention support, how do you look at the whole child? A child is a lot more than a number. You have to look at them from social-emotional aspects as well as academic aspects. Everything fits together. This district has already started down that road. 


There’s a lot of places that haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re here. We’re rolling it out, and we’re being very cautious and cognitive on how we roll it out, so that it has meaning and it’s not just another thing because this is a way of doing business. This is how we reach children. This is how you interact with community and family members. It’s a way of how you get things done.

We’ve had staff members, we’ve had teachers, we’ve had classified staff throughout the entire summer, here, taking time out of their summer to do professional development so that they can learn about these things and make a difference when they start school again. So, that level of commitment is something that is striking and is very apparent and very obvious. That commitment to children, people are driven toward that. 

What are some of the most important things you’ve learned over the course of your education career?

The most important thing is: This is not about me; it’s about our children. Probably the most powerful thing that I’ve learned is how to work collaboratively with a variety of constituent groups. Because of my experience, I’ve had the opportunity of working at a government level, county governments, state governments.

I’ve had the opportunity of working with businesses so I’ve learned how to have meaningful conversations that make sense to them. We get out the education jargon but present information and concepts to where there’s common understanding and we have common ground, so we know how to work together for the betterment of our children and our community. How to have meaningful conversation with parents, even in difficult situations. Always finding those common grounds and leading the conversation forward. Building a culture of trust and openness is something I’ve had a lot of experience with as well.

I don’t know everything, and I’m always learning. Those are some things I’ve learned as well. You can’t have an attitude of, “Yeah, I’ve got it; I’ve been there and done that before” because there’s always an element that you may not have experienced before.

There’s always that opportunity to walk away with new knowledge that will help you in the future. So, keeping that growth mindset and really having a mindset of servanthood. Everything I do is for everyone else because I know the more I can help remove barriers and roadblocks that prevent us from being the most successful that we can, the more I am setting up our children for success, to help children grow and prepare for a society that we have no idea what it’s going to look like here in the future.

What changes are you planning to bring to the district? 


That’s a question I can’t answer right now because I’m learning. I think what’s really important is to understand where the district is right now and where the district has been. I’m in that process of learning all of that. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity. I’ve met with every single one of our principals in the district for about a two- to three-hour meeting. Some very intense meetings, but it’s to build relationships and trust, and to learn as much as I can from them and where they see our district.

The other thing that’s really important is this year we’re going to be rewriting our strategic plan. As a district, this is the last year of our current strategic plan, so we’re going to be having a lot of meetings. We’ll be meeting with parents. We’ll be meeting with businesses. We’ll be meeting with students. We’ll be meeting with teachers and paired professionals, custodians. I want to involve as much community as I possibly can to understand what’s working. It’s through those relationships and through that engagement that we’ll be able to look for those patterns.

What do you see that this district is doing to stay competitive and relevant? What will make parents want to enroll their children in Oshkosh rather than other schools in our area?

I think, quite candidly, this district does an extraordinary job on professional development with their staff. When I’m talking about those elements previously, where I was mentioning about cutting edge, about taking care of the whole child, that’s something that I think is really important that Oshkosh stands out from other districts. We view the child more than a number and more than just a data point. There’s a lot more than academics. For the Oshkosh Area School District, a child is a whole child, and they bring with them different elements of that.

Another thing is that we’ve been doing the digital devices for a little while now, where some of the districts around us are still kind of new to them. So, as a result of that our teachers are more experienced with working with those devices. We’re a little bit further along in the evolution of how to use technology to leverage it to extend learning opportunities rather than replacing them.

What are your goals for the future of the district? 


A goal is to design a well-constructed strategic plan that will give us the direction that we need for the next five years, after this year. And to ensure that we’ve really reached out to our constituents and that we’ve heard from all constituents. And not only that we’ve heard them, but we’ve listened to them and that we employ that direction appropriately for the district. And that we have accountability built into it as well because we have to be accountable for our actions.

Other goals: really working on communication. I really want to ensure that we have transparent communication. We communicate with our community on a frequent basis. I want to make sure that our community is informed about what’s going on in our district because they need to know where their tax money is going to. We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve passed our last two referendums. Well, they need to know where their money’s going, why, what’s going on and that kind of stuff. That’s that accountability piece, right? And, as I mentioned before, building community through education, I can’t emphasize that enough.

Can you tell me about yourself and your background? What are your hobbies? 


My personal background is I literally come from the best of the best and the worst of the worst. When I was really small I even had a nanny.

My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mom had to go back to work. I also had some medical needs as a child, and I was one of the district’s very first students to be considered special education because I was in “Hospital Homebound.” I was in and out of hospitals half of kindergarten and half of first grade, really in and out of school.

My mom remarried, and I consider him to be my dad, and he was a chef on oil rigs off of New Orleans. So we relocated to New Orleans out of Pensacola, Florida. My father lost his job ,and my little brother was born at that point in time, my half-brother. So, being homeless, yeah, I understand that. We fortunately had good friends, and so my brother and I got to live in the garage, my parents with the baby got to live in a spare bedroom until we could get back up on our feet. So, I lived in multiple neighborhoods, some really rough areas of New Orleans. Areas you don’t want to necessarily just wander into as you might say.

I lost count of how many middle schools [I attended]. Middle school for me at that age was just a wash. But, I had a common thread that occurred because in fourth grade I started playing flute and was really good, and I was really blessed with that. 


So, in middle school what ended up happening was, as I changed school to school, the band directors would call one another, find out where I landed, and say “Hey, you need to go find this girl, Vickie. She’s really good. You’ll want her in your band.” That was the continuity that I needed and that gave me that purpose and that meaningfulness because it could have been so easy to become disengaged because life was so hard and it was very traumatic for me during that time period.

I lost my grandfather, he passed away. And during that time what little worldly items I had, unfortunately, a lot of it got stolen, and I’m bouncing from place to place, so it was hard.

Eighth grade though, I had been diagnosed with a back disorder so I had to wear a very obvious back brace. That was eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade and part of 11th grade. So there you go again, I’m different.

My senior year in high school I had to make a decision. It was, “OK, what am I going to study, and how am I going to pay for it?” Because I’m coming from a family of poverty. Now, for me it was situational poverty because it was only for a short period of my life, but it was poverty. In my senior year I was like, “Do I want to do medicine? Do I want to do music?” I knew medicine was out of my reach, so I went to music.

My band director [was] a very smart man because I started taking all the instruments home and learning them, then bringing them back, and I’d pick up the next instrument. He put one instrument outside the door, and I was like, “What’s that thing?” “Oh, It’s a bassoon.”

He was very wise because he knew that that was an instrument that would carry me through on scholarships. So, I auditioned for a scholarship at Pensacola Junior College on the flute because I didn’t think I was good enough on bassoon. So, I received a partial music scholarship.

My aunt and uncle provided me with a car, and my grandmother provided me with gas and insurance. So, now I just need work for incidentals, books, stuff like that because it wasn’t a full scholarship. Still living at home, and they had what was known as "All State" but for junior colleges in Florida. So I went to that. There were 11 bassoonists who made it. It was held at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

All of them had been playing for five years or longer, and I tied for first, and I’d only been playing for a year. So the director of bands comes over, and he said, “Vickie, how long have you been playing?” “Oh, for about a year.” And he goes, “OK, I want you to audition for me one more time.” “OK, fine.”

And he brought some additional people in, and little did I know what he actually had in mind. He was auditioning me for a scholarship. So I auditioned and right there on the spot they offered me a full music scholarship. And so my world was opened at that point.

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